During the Great Depression of the1930s, several Unemployment Relief Scheme settlements were established in the Adelaide Hills. A contemporary newspaper report predicted that the settlement in Meadows would achieve “success and prosperity.” Settlers were expected to earn 300 pounds per year.
I interviewed former settlers, and asked them how their families had fared financially.
From 300 pounds to a handful of stamps
Harry Portlock recalled:
All of the eggs that we raised from our poultry farm went to this one company. They supplied us with the day-old chickens and all of the feed, for which they took the money, and I can quite clearly remember my dad’s income for one year was delivered to him in postage stamps. I can remember quite clearly him holding it up to show us all and sundry: ‘There’s our payment for the year’, and it was postage stamps stuck to the thing. And so, really and truly, we just lived in abject poverty, as I see now, in abject poverty, and just from hand to mouth the whole time.”
Why then was poultry farming chosen?
The Employment Promotion Council believed, on the basis of advice from the Department of Agriculture and the Chief Poultry Expert, that poultry farming was suitable because the proposed scheme had a lower cost per settler, and therefore more people could be settled for the £40 000 they had available. They also believed that payable returns could be obtained quickly, and that eggs could be exported to British markets and therefore local industries would not be affected.
What went wrong?
The first problem for the settlers in Meadows was that they probably did not receive their quota of pullets. The intention had been to provide settlers with 400 White Leghorn pullets in their first spring at the settlement, and 300 pullets in the second year. However the Advertiser reported in June 1934, when the Meadows settlers were moving on to their blocks, that “unfortunately the poultry raisers who were contracted to supply the pullets failed on their job and it was only possible to let the settlers at Echunga and Bridgewater have 300 pullets and those at Yundi 250, but it is hoped to make up the shortage this season.”
It is not clear then whether the Meadows settlers ever received their full complement of pullets.
Export market for eggs
At the time the scheme started, Britain was the only export market for eggs. The Chairman of the Unemployment Relief Council stated that ” If the price of export eggs is maintained at about the figure which has ruled during the past season, and if nothing is done to interfere seriously with the acceptance of Australian eggs on the British market, it appears probable that the proportionate success will be greater than the 40 per cent thought likely when the scheme was inaugurated.” Unfortunately, these conditions were not met.
The export market collapsed in 1937, shortly after the establishment of the Meadows settlement.
The Chief Poultry Adviser to the South Australian Government, Mr C.F. Anderson, reported, “The year ending June 1937, will be well remembered by poultry breeders for the reason of the almost total collapse of the English Egg Market for Australian eggs… The English market touched the unprecedented low level for Australian eggs of 6s 3d per long hundred…which was a return of only 4 1/2d. per dozen to the producer, and when it is considered that the overall charges for shipment of eggs to Great Britain…was 5d. per dozen, it left practically no return for the producer, especially seeing that the cost of production had considerably increased during the year.”
It is not surprising then, that Harry remembers his father being paid only in postage stamps.
It was hoped that the settlers would become self-sufficient in food. However, the scrub blocks assigned to the settlers were originally covered in wattles. Settlers told me in their interviews that the fathers would cut the wattles, and then the mothers would strip off the bark. They then loaded the bark on a horse and dray and took it to the wattle bark factory in Echunga.
It therefore took several years before the blocks were ready to grow fruit and vegetables, or green fodder crops. To compound the problems, the water supply was unreliable for many years. Although the soil was suited to Australian native plants, it was not rich in the nutrients required for growing fruit and vegetables. As a result, the families struggled to grow enough food to meet their own needs. They certainly did not produce any excess that they could sell, as had been hoped.
The benefit of hindsight
Land settlement at first sounds a good idea. In theory, it enables people who have been living in poverty to become self-sufficient and develop a farm with apparently good financial prospects. Why then did the scheme fail?
With hindsight, it seems there were several reasons for the failure of the settlement, the main one being that the farmers were totally reliant on poultry exports, and when the export market collapsed they had no other market to access, nor other products to sell. There was no Plan B. The Employment Promotion Council appears to have tried to minimise costs by putting settlers on blocks that were not large enough to sustain families with as many as 10 children. Furthermore, the settlers were not experienced farmers; there was minimal if any guidance and assistance as they tried to establish themselves. As I’ll discuss in a future post, few of the families stayed on the farms, and those that did acquired additional land to make the farms viable and changed to other forms of farming, such as dairy farming.
Socially too there were major problems for the settlers that resulted from a lack of planning. I’ll address these in a future post.
References and further reading:
Journal of Agriculture, June 15, 1934, pp. 1379-1381
South Australian Parliamentary Papers 1937/43, p36
Quote from oral history interview with Harry Portlock courtesy of the State Library of South Australia (OH 829-5).